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Zumurrud Hejaz Railway Saudi Arabia First World War Arab Revolt

'A Sideshow of a Sideshow'

The Revolt in Retreat

Following the unsuccessful attempts by Sherif Hussein's sons to capture Muhit and Hafira Stations, Turkish units under Fakhri Pasha set out from Medina to pursue the retreating Arabs. By December 1916, Ottoman strength had been bolstered by reinforcements sent from Syria and Fakhri Pasha advanced with three full brigades to retake the Red Sea port of Yanbu. The Bedouin force split into two groups, retreating towards the coast, Prince Ali moving 50 kilometres to the southwest and Prince Faisal pulling back to Wadi Safra, close to Yanbu al Nakhl. With the Turks advancing on Rabigh and Yanbu, and with Mecca itself threatened, the Revolt appeared to be on the point of collapse. For the first time, Sherif Hussein appealed to the British to intervene directly, but initially High Command in Cairo was reluctant, viewing the Revolt as 'a sideshow of a sideshow' - the war in the Middle East being a mere sideshow of the main theatre of operations on the Western Front and the Arab Revolt a sideshow of that.

Amir Prince Ali bin Hussein Hashemite Hejaz Railway Saudi Arabia First World War

Prince Ali, Sherif Hussein's eldest son, commanded one of the Arab armies in the Hejaz during the war

Yanbu Arab Revolt First World War Red Sea port in Saudi Arabia

In Dec 1916, the Red Sea port of Yanbu was under threat of capture by Fakhri Pasha's counter attack out of Medina

The Arrival of the British

TE Lawrence of Arabia at Wejh in Saudi Arabia in the First World War

T.E. Lawrence was the most famous, but certainly not the only British officer to play a role in the Arab Revolt

In October 1916, a young British captain stepped onto the Arabian Peninsula for the first time. He had no official mission and had only been able to get away from his desk job in Cairo by applying for leave. Two years later he had written his page, 'brilliant as a Persian miniature in the history of England'. At the time of his arrival however, the Arab Revolt was on the verge of collapse. If the Turks had captured Rabigh and continued on to take Mecca, T.E. Lawrence, or 'Lawrence of Arabia' as he subsequently became known, would never have become a household name.

Lawrence was given permission to ride inland to meet Prince Faisal at his camp at Hamra in Wadi Safra. Owing to his knowledge of Arabic, he was quickly able to establish a close relationship with the prince, describing in Seven Pillars of Wisdom how he 'felt at first glance that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek - the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory.'

TE Lawrence of Arabia met Prince Faisal at his camp at Hamra in Wadi Safra during the First World War in Saudi Arabia

Atmospheric early morning photo of the Arab camp at Hamra in Wadi Safra, where T.E. Lawrence met Prince Faisal for the first time

T.E. Lawrence was by no means the first British officer to arrive in the Hejaz during the war. Lt. Col. Cyril Wilson had been based at the British Consulate in Jeddah since June 1916, acting as the main liaison between Allied military headquarters in Cairo and Sherif Hussein, together with his four sons and local supporters.

While officially in the Hejaz as a 'pilgrimage officer', perhaps Wilson's most vital role was in maintaining Hussein's morale at times when the Revolt appeared close to collapse. Aided by Capt. Norman, an Indian Army intelligence office, and Hussein Ruhi, a Persian spy, he also helped to thwart Jihadist conspirators in the Hejaz from seizing the Sherif and handing him over to the Ottomans. In addition, he played an important role in the receiving of Arab regular forces (captured from the Ottomans in North Africa), as well as distributing artillery batteries and munitions from Cairo, all of which were vital to Hussein's successes at the outset of the Revolt.

Lt. Col. Cyril Wilson (without headdress), the British Representative in the Hejaz, with Prince Abdullah (seated) and the Persian spy Hussein Ruhi (on the left)

Lt Col Cyril Wilson British Representative in Hejaz and Lawrence of Arabia's senior officer in the First World War Arab
Major Herbert Garland, Amir Prince Ali, Amir Prince Abdullah Hashemite, Hejaz Railway in the Arab Revolt during First World War

Major H. Garland (furthest left) with Prince Ali (2nd from the right) and Prince Abdullah (furthest right)

Several other British combatants were sent from Cairo to bolster the Bedouin forces and prevent an early collapse of the Arab Revolt. Lt. Col. P. Joyce (Connaught Rangers), Lt. Col. S. Newcombe (Royal Engineers) and Major W. Davenport (West Yorkshire Regiment) all played prominent parts in the war on the railway, but the first British officer to carry out a demolition raid was Major Herbert Garland (Royal Engineers, Egyptian Army). His attack at Towaira Station in February 1917 was the first to derail a locomotive and would become a blueprint for future raids on the line.

The Defence of Yanbu

An engineer by profession, Garland's first major contribution in the Hejaz was in organising the defence of Yanbu. When General Fakhri Pasha attacked the important Red Sea port with two brigades in December 1916, it was widely expected that the Arabs would be no match for the well trained regular Ottoman troops and that the town would fall without resistance. The Arabic-speaking Garland however, had other ideas. He quickly coordinated the efforts of the local townspeople and set them to work to create an effective system of defences. The town's 300 year old coral walls were strengthened, a trench dug, a barbed wire fence laid and several machine gun posts put in position. An old Turkish cannon was brought back into use to bolster Arab firepower, although Garland was the first to concede that it was 'apt to fire astern instead of forward'!

HMIS Dufferin Royal Navy at Yanbu during the Arab Revolt in the First World War
HMS Suva Royal Navy at Yanbu Arab Revolt First World War Ottoman attack

Two of the ships deployed to Yanbu in December 1916:  HMIS Dufferin (above) and HMS Suva (below)

Major Herbert Garland on Hejaz Railway during Arab Revolt in the First World War

The Arabic-speaking Garland strengthened the defences of Yanbu in readiness for the Ottoman attack

Perhaps the greatest factor in favour of the Arabs was the presence of British naval power. Five ships of the Red Sea Patrol moored off the coast with their guns trained on the approaches to the town. Spooked by their searchlights, the Ottomans decided to withdraw and move southwards to threaten Rabigh. Lawrence wrote: 'Their hearts had failed them at the silence and the blaze of lighted ships from end to end of the harbour, with the eerie beams of the searchlights revealing the bleakness of the glacis they would have to cross. So they turned back: and that night, I believe, the Turks lost their war.' (Seven Pillars of Wisdom) Flights from the seaplane carrier HMS Raven II harried the Ottoman forces as they retreated.

HMS Raven II seaplane carrier at Yanbu Arab Revolt First World War Ottoman attack

HMS Raven II was originally a German freighter, seized at Port Said in Egypt at the outbreak of war. Converted to a seaplane carrier, its aircraft pursued the Ottoman forces as they retreated from Yanbu

Yanbu Red Sea port during the Arab Revolt in First World War

The waterfront at Yanbu in 1917. During Fakhri Pasha's advance on the vital Red Sea town in Dec 1916, the presence of five ships of the Royal Navy's Red Sea Patrol deterred the Ottoman forces from launching an attack

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